December 14, 2005
Editor’s note: Village Magazine is Ireland’s main public affairs weekly.
by Conor McCarthy
In The Holocaust Industry, he argued that the Holocaust had been turned into a compensation industry for the dwindling number of survivors.
Now Norman Finkelstein has written a forensic critique of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ and of Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. Conor McCarthy reviews
Norman Finkelstein’s chief claim to fame is as author of The Holocaust Industry, which appeared in 2000. In this book, he argued that the term
“the Holocaust” had become grievously separated from the events it referred to – the mechanised slaughter of six million European Jews between 1933
and 1945 – and turned instead into a kind of linguistic or ideological weapon used to perform a financial shakedown of the German government and
of Swiss banks. The perpetrators of the shakedown were various American and Israeli Jewish groups, who purported to seek compensation for the
dwindling number of survivors of the camps. Finkelstein’s thesis, unsurprisingly, caused outrage: Julia Neuberger, in The Irish Times, referred
to it as “very slight, rather unpleasant”, while herself oddly employing the ad hominem mode of criticism of which she had accused Finkelstein.
Yet, the impeccably liberal American historian Peter Novack in The Holocaust in American Life, and the Israeli historian Tom Segev in his
The Seventh Million, had come to much the same conclusions, even if they expressed their views with less polemical ferocity than Finkelstein.
But then Finkelstein thrives on such opposition.
His chosen mode of writing is that of the forensic polemicist: Finkelstein has always developed his theses through an aggressive engagement with
the work of others. It is, of course, inevitable that contemporary academics – political theorists, historians, critics – in some degree find
their own thought by way of critiques of those who have worked on the same terrain in the past. But rarely is this as explicit as it is in the
case of Norman Finkelstein.
He first came to prominence when, as a graduate student, he provided a devastating critique of Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial (1984). This
mammoth tome, which came garlanded with praise from such luminaries as Barbara Tuchman, Lucy Dawidowicz, Elie Wiesel, and Saul Bellow, was
produced under the aegis of the famous Princeton historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis (now recognised as a leading neoconservative
apologist). Peters argued that the Palestinians were not, in fact, from Palestine. Rather, she suggested that the successful economy developed
in Palestine by Jewish Zionist settlers in the early 20th century had induced an illegal influx of Arabs from what we would now call Syria,
Jordan and Lebanon. Thus, Peters arrived at the conclusion most famously articulated by Golda Meir, that “there were no Palestinians” – the
“Palestinians” were actually recent immigrants, and so had no valid claim to the land. Finkelstein demonstrated, in a series of painstaking,
even pedantic, essays, that Peters had utterly, and at times willfully, misinterpreted her sources. It was ultimately recognised that
Finkelstein had been correct, though this has not prevented Peters’s book re-emerging in a new edition in 2001.
Now, in Beyond Chutzpah, Finkelstein has the well-known lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, in his sights. Dershowitz is best known as a leading
American defence lawyer, whose dubious clients have included Mike Tyson, OJ Simpson and Claus von Bulow. But he also holds the Felix Frankfurter
Chair of Law at Harvard, is the author of numerous books, and is an ardent Zionist. Of his books, two have attained prominence recently:
Why Terrorism Works (2002) and The Case for Israel (2003). The burden of Finkelstein’s book is concerned with a massive scholarly
critique of The Case for Israel.
The first chapters of Beyond Chutzpah analyse and historicise the idea of “the new anti-Semitism”, a concept that has been in circulation in
recent years. Finkelstein finds, by comparing recent publications on this topic with others from the 1970s and 1980s, that the notion of a
“new anti-Semitism” has arisen in parallel with junctures when Israel has found itself under diplomatic or moral pressure, whether to withdraw
from the Egyptian Sinai in 1974, or for its invasion and destruction of Lebanon in 1982. In other words, the function of the social and political
panic that has arisen periodically around a “new anti-Semitism” has been in part an effort to stifle criticism of the Jewish state. So, the
recent efflorescence has taken place in parallel to Israel’s quite exceptionally brutal responses to the al-Aqsa intifada since 2000, including
the possible massacre perpetrated at Jenin and the illegal construction of the Wall. To criticise these activities has been to risk being
tarnished with the brush of “anti-Semitism”, even if such criticism has nothing to do Jewish identity, religion or culture.
The last two thirds of Finkelstein’s book are devoted to the most detailed and careful rebuttal of many of Dershowitz’s arguments in The Case for Israel.
Over against poorly documented claims made by Dershowitz about history, about the Israeli Supreme Court, and about Israel’s human rights record in
the Palestinian Territories, Finkelstein sets the testimony and reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem (the Israeli
Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and the archival research of the most up-to-date serious historical and legal
scholarship. In this work, Finkelstein emulates the towering analysis of the Lebanon war and its reception in Israel, Europe and the United States
provided by Noam Chomsky in The Fateful Triangle.
It has to be said that to many readers this will to blast holes in every argument of Dershowitz’s will smack of obsession: spending so much time and
effort dismantling the fabrications of one’s enemy is to give to that enemy an attention that he perhaps does not deserve. Yet, Dershowitz’s book has
become an American national bestseller; it has been widely distributed on American college campuses; thousands of copies were purchased by the Israeli
Foreign Ministry for global distribution; and the Israeli United Nations Mission gave out hundreds of copies to UN ambassadors and officers – in this
context, one begins to understand Finkelstein’s sheer doggedness and persistence. In this context, Finkelstein begins to look like a David taking on a
Goliath, a David whose relentless erudition offers us a vital counter-narrative to blandishments about “purity of arms”, “benign occupation”, “the
peace process”, the “road map”, the “security barrier”, or the “Gaza withdrawal”. Finkelstein may be a disturbing writer in his single-minded intensity
and focus, but he is indispensable.
Conor McCarthy is a founding member of the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Group